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Avatars of Additive at RAPID 2014

Behind the fun, serious technology at work

By Michael C. Anderson
Senior Editor manderson

Software developer Materialise (Plymouth, MI) had a great event on Tuesday at the co-located Big M event and RAPID conference at Detroit’s Cobo Center: slot car racing on a huge four-lane track, using cars made via 3D printing. Check out the bright orange car in the adjacent image here: it looks like it was pressed out of strands of spaghetti rather than printed up from a polymer. The car could really move, though. 

A few rows up and over from the track, engineers from rp+m (Avon Lake, OH) were flying a drone that featured a 3D-printed nylon mesh around its perimeter, which acts as a bumper around the outer edge of the toy’s four helicopter blades in the event of a crash—and crash it did, though it was soon up and hovering again.

A little further past the slot car track in the other direction were objets d’art, including an arresting lifesized bust of Detroit’s own RoboCop and a larger-than life, almost-human (if “human” is the word I want) bust of a character from the film “Avatar”—both made using additive technology by Legacy Effects (San Fernando, CA). Materialize - Slot Car

Behind them, artist Ioan Florea’s full-sized “Liquid Metal” muscle car beggars description. (Close as I can come is to say it’s what Aquaman would drive if he grew up under Lake St. Clair in the 1960s). It too was made through additive processes.

And as long as we’ve moved into the arts, it’s a short step to the world of fashion—represented at this event by the young woman from Fisher/Unitech (Troy, MI) modeling Wearable 3D Printing over a little black dress.   

 This is a fun show, folks, though at first glance it might seem to be one that’s drifting close to frivolity and far from the world of serious manufacturing. That’s been the response to additive technology itself by a lot of people who are still completely emotionally invested in traditional subtractive manufacturing technology.  Legacy Effects - Avatar Sculpture

For these people, 3D printing is a gadget for hobbyists to make toys, not manufacturers to make durable products. For them, the technology comes freighted with connotations of do-it-yourself Utopianism, of “Maker Faires” crowded with techno-hippies dreaming of a ‘maker’ in every house and the end of factories, resellers and mass production itself.

These people may grudgingly admit that 3D printing may—may!—have a future in manufacturing, but, they’ll insist, the technology and the price point just aren’t there yet.

They’re wrong. The technology is indeed “there” already, as is spelled out in “3D Printing Builds Up its Manufacturing Resume” by Tim Caffrey and Terry Wohlers in the June ME. And today PwC has released a report titled “3D printing and the new shape of industrial manufacturing,” that says that two out of three US manufacturers are already using 3D printing in some way. “Manufacturers—from small job shops to multinational industrial products firms—are crossing the threshold from tinkering with prototypes to the production of final products,” the report says.

Liquid Metal Muscle CarThose who ignore the opportunity being presented by additive (literally presented: The Big M and RAPID events continue through Thursday) are doomed to join the scoffers of the Horseless Carriage and the Personal Computer on the wrong side of history. Wake up and smell the extrusion.

 Fisher Unitech Wearable 3D printingAnyway, that “frivolousness” of some the demonstrations described above are no more so than what you’ll see in the aisles of IMTS next September. In both cases, an eye-catching display of what a technology can do is used for marketing—but behind the fun are serious applications. To take just one example, rp+m—those were the guys flying the toy drone—have grants from and are working with NASA, Honeywell, Boeing, and other manufacturers to develop materials for additive that can be used to make engine components for air and spacecraft. Materialise, Fisher/Unitech, and the rest too—they look like they’re having fun, but they’re also doing serious work, with serious, sober-minded customers and partners.

And why shouldn’t they look happy? They have a joy previously seen in the computer industry, the composites industry, back further in the aerospace industry and, about a hundred years ago, seen here in Detroit: it’s the joy of people who know they are the very front edge of the future—whether their contemporaries get it or not. The people at The Big M and RAPID get it.  ME  


Published Date : 6/11/2014

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